This weekend, the nation was fixated on the horrifying display of hate in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a group of neo-Nazis held court armed with tiki torches, military cosplay, guns, clubs, and an outrageous sense of entitlement.
The preppy fascists were said to have congregated on the University of Virginia campus to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. They came to instigate outrage, and violence. And when all was said and done, a suspected white nationalist was arrested for allegedly plowing his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 people.
“It was truly a weekend of horrifying images. We saw Nazi flags and marchers carrying torches—tiki torches, by the way, because nothing says ‘white nationalist’ like faux Polynesian kitsch,” said John Oliver.
The Last Week Tonight host opened his program Sunday evening by addressing the events in Charlottesville—including President Donald Trump’s rambling, insufficient reaction to the tragedy, with the commander in chief refusing to denounce white nationalists, slipping in President Barack Obama’s name, imploring Americans to “cherish our history” (see: Robert E. Lee’s statue), and condemning hate “on many sides.”
“We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence—on many sides. On many sides,” declared Trump from his Bedminster golf club.
“Wait… on many sides?!” exclaimed Oliver. “This was a white-nationalist rally—you have to call that out by name. There aren’t many instances in modern American politics where you can honestly think, ‘That guy really should have mentioned the Nazis,’ but this is emphatically one of them. It’s like a reverse Godwin’s Law: If you fail to mention Nazism, you lose the argument.”
And, after “having made a wild false equivalence between Nazis and people who oppose Nazis,” Trump attempted to clear his own name, saying, “It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time.”
But this rally did have plenty to do with Donald Trump—according to the white nationalists who participated in it. In addition to white nationalists chanting things like “Heil Trump,” David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (whose presidential endorsement candidate Trump famously refused to disavow for several days), was interviewed in Charlottesville by a reporter.
“We are determined to take our country back. We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believe in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump,” said Duke.
“I’ve gotta say, David Duke and the Nazis really seem to like Donald Trump, which is weird because Nazis are a lot like cats: If they like you, it’s probably because you’re feeding them,” said Oliver, adding, “And that kind of connection there is something that anyone in their right mind would want to immediately and repeatedly disavow, and it’s not like Trump wasn’t given the opportunity.”
Yes, Trump was repeatedly asked to condemn the white nationalists in Charlottesville, many of whom took to the streets in his honor, as he exited his Bedminster press conference. “How do you respond to white nationalists who say they’re participating in Charlottesville because they support you?” one reporter asked. “Do you want the support of these white nationalist groups who say they support you, Mr. President?”
The questions fell on deaf ears.
“Here’s the problem with that: A non-answer in a moment like this is an answer,” said Oliver. “And look, don’t take that just from me. White nationalists seemed pretty clear about the message Trump had sent to them with his response.”
Indeed, neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer ran a piece on Saturday praising President Trump’s vague speech. “Trump comments were good… He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about white nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him,” they wrote.
“And look, maybe Trump will eventually take a second swing at personally condemning the white nationalists. Maybe he has since we’ve taped this show. But even if he does, it’ll be too late. Because his first response is who he is. And the truly infuriating thing is how predictable this was,” offered Oliver.
“It simply doesn’t get easier than disavowing Nazis. It’s as much of a presidential gimme as pardoning a fucking turkey. It is almost impossible to screw it up. But that’s exactly what happened,” the comedian continued. “So there is clearly no point waiting for leadership from our president in moments like this, because it is just not coming, which means we will have to look to one another, because incredibly, in a country where previous presidents have actually had to defeat Nazis, we now have one who cannot even be bothered to fucking condemn them.”